In 1838, an establishment on Strand Lane known as the “Old Roman Spring Baths” appeared in a London trade directory, under the proprietorship of a Mr. Charles Scott. Patrons could take a plunge into the cool waters of one of the two pools found there, but within a decade, most visitors were attracted by an interest in seeing a survivor of Roman London.
Business also almost certainly benefitted from the baths featuring in Charles Dicken’s David Copperfield, and their inclusion in many London guidebooks. But unfortunately for those 19th-century tourists, they had been duped.
The oldest part of the baths only dated back to the early 17th century, when a cistern had been constructed to feed a fountain at the nearby old Somerset House (the predecessor to the current building of the same name on that site). After the demolition of the fountain, the cistern was left derelict for many years before being brought into use as a cold bath in the 1770s. The original cistern was soon joined by a newer pool, lined with marble and surrounded by a stone-flagged floor and tiled walls.
Once the canny businessman declared them Roman baths though, the presumption that they were ancient stuck fast in the mind of the public—and indeed in the minds of some of the subsequent owners. Even though later owners were quick to dismiss the newer pool (and indeed sell it off) as a later addition, they sought to “restore” the cistern to its Roman appearance, with it receiving not one, but two “refurbishments” to cover the brickwork in marble and stucco.
The restorations did not bring in the desired crowds of visitors though, and by the mid-20th century, the baths were closed. They passed into the hands of the National Trust in 1947. After repair and redecoration (removing much of the marble), the baths were opened to the public as a historical curiosity in 1951.
Currently, the baths seem to be in danger of falling back into neglect again. Tucked away as they are on an alleyway, with little signposting, they receive few visitors. It doesn’t help that the main gate leading to them on nearby Surrey Street is usually locked. For those who do find them, they are often only viewable through a window, which is frequently fogged up, and relies on an external switch to provide light to the interior.